Just 17 days after their first debate, Arkansas District 8 Senate candidates Denny Altes, Frank Glidewell, and Rep. Mat Pitsch reconvened to answer questions on a several statewide issues in a debate hosted by the Sebastian County Republican Party.
Topping the list were medical marijuana, support for or against Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, tort reform, how to manage tax cuts and a balanced budget, and the Fort Smith Public Schools’ proposed millage increase. Questions were asked by Talk Business & Politics Executive Editor Michael Tilley. The debate was held at the Senior Activity Center in Fort Smith.
On the question of what the legislature should do, if anything, to relieve the stalled process of medical marijuana implementation, House Majority Leader Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, drew a parallel between the present and past corruption amid formation of the Highway Commission in the 1960s. Pitsch said something “similar” was going on with medical marijuana.
Pitsch credited Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller for having the foresight to realize that “legislators involved with highways is a bad thing, because they threatened to control budgets until they got something done.” So, Pitsch said, Rockefeller formed the Highway Commission consisting of a commissioner from each congressional district.
“It’s worked fairly well because it keeps the legislators from micromanaging how we build highways and the good of the state is represented. That same plan was set up when we went into medical marijuana. There’s a medical marijuana commission. We, as a legislature, set up a framework for them to exist. We passed six bills with some very specific things we wanted. But we are, much like the highway department, not allowed to go say, ‘I want a highway from here to here,’ or ‘I want the medical marijuana to do this or to do that.’ It’s commissioners that control the medical marijuana.”
Pitsch said he was not allowed to get into the data, but said the issue now is “that some commissioners knew who the growers and dispensers were and were pushing things that direction.” He said there was “corruption involved in the commission level, and that’s why it’s stalled.”
Pitsch also reiterated his opposition to medical marijuana in general. Altes was no supporter, but favored a bill to allow medical marijuana in a non-smoking form. Glidewell said that while he is not for expanding marijuana laws or use of the drug recreationally, he “wouldn’t keep it from someone who needs it,” such as cancer patients.
GOV. HUTCHINSON, TORT REFORM
One of the more unexpectedly difficult questions of the night for Glidewell came when Tilley asked each of the candidates if they would support Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson in his Republican primary contest against challenger Jan Morgan. Glidewell took Hutchinson and his Republican majorities in the House and Senate to task for “continuing to raise taxes” and not behaving like Republicans. Of Hutchinson in particular, he said the governor should think about “calling himself a conservative Democrat” instead of a Republican. Time expired before Glidewell gave an answer. On his next turn, he clarified that he “liked” Hutchinson, but he didn’t like how much his administration was spending.
Altes and Pitsch gave full endorsements of Gov. Hutchinson with Pitsch giving him credit for “responsibly” cutting taxes and growing job creation. Altes said that while Hutchinson is “not as conservative as I am,” he agreed with most of what he stands for.
On a controversial tort reform question on the November ballot that would, among other provisions, limit attorney’s fees to 35%, Pitsch said he does support it and that “one-third” of a settlement or judgment is “enough” for attorneys. Glidewell took issue with the fact the bill limits pain and suffering damages to $500,000 and said he could not “support the bill as it is written.” Altes said while he did not like to “put a price on a human life,” there were enough additional factors in the bill to ensure sizable judgments when a situation called for it. He joined Pitsch in being for the bill.
TAXES AND MILLAGE
On the topic of cutting taxes and balancing the budget, Altes said he believed that all agencies and departments could do for a 20% trim to their budgets, adding that the “only way to reduce government is to starve it.” He favored directing all programs back through general revenue. Glidewell chastised Republicans for “sleight of hand” on supposed income tax cuts, while keeping “tire, candy, soft drinks, and even unemployment taxes” on the books.
“Taxes have increased more than they’ve decreased under Republican leadership. You call it a tax cut. I call it robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Pitsch noted the Revenue Stabilization Act (RSA) means that on “the other side of the equal sign” for every tax cut, there were services that needed to be funded. Responsible management of that funding, he said, has allowed Arkansas to build its “rainy day fund” closer to the 5% needed to achieve a AAA bond rating, which could get the state better interest rates on needed projects.
“We have to do tax cuts,” Pitsch said, “but we have to be smart in how we do them.”
While the school millage is an issue to be decided locally, the fact Altes, Glidewell, or Pitsch will be the representative of the district’s largest city prompted a question of how each would vote. Pitsch supported it mainly due to the security needs it addresses. Glidewell said “there were some good things in it” and pushed for more school resource officers, but ultimately said he would leave it for voters to decide. Altes also supported the SRO idea, but went further, adding, “I think we need it (millage increase).”